Virtual Worlds: Real People Real Feelings - Seminar Pre-reading

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  • 1. Virtual Worlds:
    Real People - Real Feelings
    Exploring an understanding of identity and relationships online
    2101215970915The opportunities for us to live an increasing part of our lives online are many and varied, from playing games on the CBBC website, to social networks such as Facebook to immersive ‘massively multiplayer online role player games’ and augmented reality experiences. Though it may be a stereo-typical image, it is not solely the socially-challenged overweight gamer geek taking advantage of the potential. It is almost possible to ‘live’ entirely online, but this raises many questions, not least physical, ethical and existential. Some of the fundamental fear about online social spaces is that of anonymous strangers befriending, grooming and endangering our teenagers; fears occasionally realised in the desperately tragic news items like that of Ashleigh Hall, found murdered in a field outside Sedgefield last October. We have a duty to understand the potential problems inherent with the online and to try and educate our young people about being sensible and secure but also to learn about the great potentials that online spaces and virtual worlds (as we will focus on as examples in this seminar) have and how to embrace the positive. There are challenges and risks for all of us, but these technologies are already ubiquitous and will not disappear, so it is incumbent on us to appreciate the environments our young (and not-so-young) people are engaging with. We need to explore what potential they can have and what problems they can create.
    The opportunities and their effect on people is a topic under direct study by a number of disciplines, all of which can enlighten us. Psychologists delve into our identities and personalities and how they affect how we relate to our avatars and others in a virtual world and how we become addicted to these worlds and these relationships. At the same time, the sociologists look at us corporately and at how we act and react, form, norm and storm as communities. The educationalists wonder if we can learn better in a virtual, simulated environment, and the engineers, computer scientists and technology professionals are searching for even better ways to hook our Wii handsets up to our laptops in order to deepen our sense of immersion. Underpinning all the research is a deep connection that we can develop with the pixels we direct on a screen, to the extent that they become us, we them. This can have a profound effect on our sense of ‘reality’; to our sense of place in and connection to the ‘real world’ and thus to the world to come. That we struggle over what is real and what is not is an open field for those asking ethical questions – questions which sometimes also attract the attention of lawyers.
    We need to examine who we are and what we can do in online spaces, and how our actions can impact on others, recognising that whilst we are interacting apparently only with a computer, the power of online social networks and worlds is that the computer is simply a means to interact with other people at the other end of the connection.
    -272433290127
    Saturday, 18 July 2009
    HYPERLINK " http://faith-theology.blogspot.com/2009/07/once-more-on-self-in-cyberspace.html" Once more on the self in cyberspace: a theology of avatars http://tinyurl.com/theolavatar
    43065701452245I’ve been revising my recent conference paper on blogging for publication. I don’t mean to bore you with more excerpts – but here’s a brief section that I ended up deleting from the paper. (Technically, that means I’m posting my trash here. Sorry about that...)In Cities of God, Graham Ward worries that virtual reality is becoming not “the other of the real”, but “a parallel world to the real one”, so that the ontological difference between them collapses. Ward’s analysis is, I think, correct. But this is not something to be lamented – as though the solution were to drive a deeper wedge between “real reality” and “virtual reality”. Instead, the significant point is precisely that the distinction between “real” reality and “virtual” reality is purely a nominal one. The virtual world is not a different place, an indistinct zone which one occasionally visits; it is simply the name for particular sets of practices and social relations.Such a recognition – that cyberspace is no less “real” than the tangible, material world – is essential for any Christian ethical reflection on cyberspace. If I consume internet porn, I am not indulging in a “virtual” (i.e. less-than-real) act. If I have a conversation with someone on a blog, this is not a “virtual” act either; it is a practice involving particular kinds of relations between persons. If I have an avatar in a gaming environment, or in Second Life, this too is not merely a virtual representation of my true self; it is in some sense an extension of the self, a manifestation of the self under different social constraints and conditions. If my cyber-self is far more violent, more aggressive or more erotic than my non-virtual self, this might have more to do with the differing sets of social constraints in web environments: so that it is sometimes tempting to regard the avatar not as a virtual reality, but as an uninhibited, more real manifestation of the self.If you want to insist that such an avatar could never be the “real you”, then you might consider how the “real” self is manifest in various day-to-day relationships. In our differing roles and relationships, we all deploy various personae or avatars: I have one persona at an academic conference, but quite another when I’m talking with my one-year-old son, and a different one again when I’m talking with a close friend, or with my employer. Which of these is the “real” self? Isn’t the self precisely an assemblage of such avatars, without the guarantee of any deep underlying essence?This might all sound very postmodern and constructivist. But think for a moment of the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels. Many scholars have bravely tried to develop a psychological profile of Jesus, to plumb the mysterious depths of his inner self. But the reason such attempts have so notoriously failed is that Jesus simply has no inner life; his identity is his deeds. One can know everything about him simply by observing what he does on the surface. When John the Baptist sends his disciples to inquire after Jesus’ identity, Jesus replies: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22-23). The true self is right there in front of you, right on the surface.At a 1964 Halloween concert in Carnegie Hall, Bob Dylan offered the humorous remark: “It’s Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on. I’m masquerading.” Is not every self an assemblage of such masquerades? Do we need to imagine the self as some deep underlying essence? Is the self not rather simply the continual surfacing of one’s being into material relations with others?
    Posted by Ben Myers at 4:21 PM
    24 Comments:
    Danny said...
    " ? Do we need to imagine the self as some deep underlying essence? Is the self not rather simply the continual surfacing of one’s being into material relations with others?" What " being" is manifesting itself or surfacing itself into material relations if not the " essential" self? (I'm thinking Augustine here...)I'm also confused about what it would mean for Jesus to have no inner life. Certainly whatever inner life he has would consist of " mental deeds" ; why think just because we don't see them that they don't exist?
    HYPERLINK " http://tenwarningstotheobloggers.wordpress.com/" TW said...
    Gnosticism, the uglier twin.
    HYPERLINK " http://www.blogger.com/profile/16827801532797871926" Zwingli 2.0 said...
    The Boros reference is particularly helpful when read alongside John 2:24-25:" But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man." In Christ, it's as if God, to borrow Dan Via's terminology from " Self-Deception and Wholeness" , is " re-creating the self-related wholeness that God effected in creation but that has been lost in sin."
    kim fabricius said...
    I think that what Ben is gesturing towards here is not a rejection of " interiority" or the " inner life" as such, but the Cartesian version of it which Wittgenstein deconstructed, but which tenaciously hangs around: the notion that there is a real, disembodied " me" that lives inside my head, which we can at best infer, more or less, from a person's actions and behaviour.Rowan Williams has two splendid essays which explore the matter: " The Suspicion of Suspicion: Wittgenstein and Bonhoeffer" (1988), reprinted in Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology (2007), and " Interiority and Epiphany: a Reading in New Testament Ethics" (1995), republished in On Christian Theology (2000).In the former essay, Williams approvingly quotes Fergus Kerr (from his great book Theology after Wittgenstein [1986]): " the depth of the world is on the surface, so to speak: but also, what is most secret about the self is public knowledge."
    Mel said...
    Ben, You seem to dance around the concept of hyperreality here. While originally coined in relation to phenomena such as photography and holograms and Disneyland, hyperreality is the authentic fake (as Eco puts it, I believe). The term has greater semantic compass than the commonly used 'virtual reality' because it affirms the continuity with the real while birthing a concept to convey another plane of existence and interaction. It is a participatory removal from physically-mediated interactions and a removed participation in cyber-mediated interactions (though still allowing for mouse clicks and key strokes). Cyberspace as you explore it here seems to slide right into the conceptual framework of hyperreality. The avatar, as in Second Life, seems to be the hyperrealization of the self. Perhaps this could be a unique framework for approaching the relationship of the Spirit and the ascended Christ, particularly if you are suggesting a shift away from classical metaphysical construals of the self by identifying Jesus wholly with his deeds. The Spirit, in effect, is the doer of the ascended Christ's deeds in his removed participation in the ongoing history of the world.Cheers
    HYPERLINK " http://buttrey.ca/beyond/" Michael said...
    The distinction between real and virtual reality is purely a nominal one? Sounds like nominalism to me! Seriously, I really appreciated this deconstruction of our ability to maintain a Cartesian distance between our 'real' self and our 'virtual' actions. I suspect something similar is at work in the popularity of cosmetic surgery - the goal being to redesign our outer shell so it more closely resembles the 'authentic' self (ghost?) inside.
    Mike Higton said...
    Loved the post. One quick comment, though: you seem to suggest at one point that the uninhibted self might be more real precisely because it is uninhibted. Isn't that buying into the whole model you're rejecting: that if it weren't for my 'inhibitions' my real self could be expressed? If I am what I am in my relationships, then aren't I my inhibitions, even if no set of inhibitions exhausts me?
    HYPERLINK " http://www.blogger.com/profile/10893777139388546286" Fat said...
    Is it sin if your Avatar does it?
    HYPERLINK " http://www.blogger.com/profile/06036111700385433618" Pablo said...
    This post is tremendous. Especially, " If my cyber-self is far more violent, more aggressive or more erotic than my non-virtual self, this might have more to do with the differing sets of social constraints in web environments: so that it is sometimes tempting to regard the avatar not as a virtual reality, but as an uninhibited, more real manifestation of the self." I tend to be far more violent & aggressive (& some day, erotic) when slamming my avatar around the Internet than when I arrive somewhere with my ugly mug in real life to haggle & concede.